Making a sales pitch for their sport

Women skateboarders seek awareness, equality

X Games

August 18, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - It's five minutes before the start of the biggest showcase of the year, and Candy Hiler is still trying to get her wits about her.

She's a little hung over, her back hurts, and aside from shaking out the cobwebs, she can't seem to keep her shoulder-length dark hair out of her eyes. Sitting next to Hiler is Heidi Fitzgerald, who has a demon tattooed on one arm, a pair of dice on the other.

"Damn," Hiler says. "Does anybody have a rubber band I can use for a ponytail? I forgot mine."

Not more than 20 feet away, Jen O'Brien giggles playfully with her 2-year-old daughter, Lotus. With her long blond hair and perfect smile, O'Brien could blend in at a PTA meeting. She's about as punk rock as Martha Stewart.

All three, however, have plenty in common: They're women's pro skateboarders. They're also here at Summer X Games VIII, along with Cara-Beth Burnside and Lyn-Z Adams, with a common goal. They want to show people that women's skateboarding is one of the country's fastest growing sports.

"A lot of people think skateboarding is just for the guys," says O'Brien, who has been skating for 10 years. "But I know so many girls that are stoked about the sport. Hopefully if they see some of us out there, they'll be even more into it."

Women's skateboarding is still trying to find its niche in the world of action sports. Even at the X Games, which is recognized as the Olympics for sports like skateboarding, there is virtually no female presence. Women can compete in only inline skating, wakeboarding and climbing.

ESPN, which sponsors and organizes the games, says it is reflecting the interest of its viewers. The network also says there aren't enough strong women competitors out there, even though studies show more than 1.6 million girls were skateboarding in 2000.

So to generate some buzz, these five women skateboarders were invited to put on an hour demonstration of their skills yesterday. A decent-sized crowd inside the First Union Center watched eagerly as the skateboarders put on a fast-paced and, at times, high-flying show. Their hope is that next year, they'll be competing against each other, just like their male counterparts.

"I think it's time to have a competition [at the X Games]," says Burnside. "I see girls who look at us and are inspired to go out there and try skating. You can just see how much it means to them. I remember when I was that age, looking up to role models. I've seen how far things have come."

At 33, Burnside is essentially the matriarch of women's skateboarding, as well as an accomplished pro snowboarder who placed fourth in the halfpipe at the 1998 Olympics. She's been off and on a skateboard since 1978. Burnside said she gave up skating to play college soccer, but just "couldn't stay away" from skating.

O'Brien was the same way. Unable to skate with girls growing up, she learned anything she could from the guys. Soon she was performing big tricks and winning their respect. At last year's X Games, O'Brien actually competed in the vert doubles event with her boyfriend, Bob Burnquist, when his partner had to pull out with a broken ankle. The crowd loved it, but officials wouldn't give O'Brien and Burnquist a score after other skaters complained she hadn't properly qualified.

"Five years ago, there wasn't that many girls into the sport," O'Brien said. "But now, it seems like every time I go out to the park, I see girls I've never seen before just ripping it up. It's really starting to progress."

Only 12, Adams is billed as the future of women's skating. It won't be long before she goes pro. Already her family decided to home-school her because her teachers were upset that she missed so much school to attend competitions around the country last year. Not long ago, Adams admits she was at home idolizing skaters like O'Brien and Burnside. Now she considers them fellow competitors.

"When people tell me I'm the future, I think it's cool," Adams says. "I hope I am. I've got some stuff to work on. Hopefully at the next X Games, I'll be able to show people what I can do if we have a women's division."

O'Brien and other women put on a demo in 1998 in San Diego, but nothing much came of it.

"I know Lyn-Z is going to be out there ripping it up for a lot of years," O'Brien says. "She's getting so good already, and she's so young. Hopefully people will like what they saw today and in a few years, there will be so many girls into it, I'll be out looking for a job."

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